Visiting Iwo Jima – WW2 in the Pacific

When photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the image of six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Iwo Jima’s highest point, it arguably became the most iconic moment of the war in the Pacific.

The date was February 23, 1945, and the photograph soon made front pages around the world, (it also won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography the same year). Not only that, but the image also painted a false representation of what was happening on Iwo Jima.

The battle on the island would rage for over a month. 110,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots were brought in to fight. Out of that staggeringly high number, 26,000 would be killed or injured.

It was one of the bloodiest battles in the pacific during WW2. Now, 85 years later, the volcanic outpost is open to a small stream of visitors by official guide only.

For those that are passionate about military dark tourism, it is one for the bucket list.

The Battle of Iwo Jima

Image: Joe Rosenthal / Public domain

The American invasion of Iwo Jima began on February 19, 1945. It would take just 4 days for the soldiers to reach the 554-foot peak of Mount Surabachi and raise the Stars and Stripes.

However, the battle wouldn’t end until March 26, 1945. It was the first U.S. attack on the Japanese Home Islands, and it is no small surprise that the Imperial Soldiers put up such a fierce fight.

The Japanese defensive infrastructure was more than ready. Their positions were heavily fortified, with hidden bunkers, vast artillery, and a large network of tunnels for fast and effective movement.

This all gave the Japanese a strong position on the island even after the fall of Mount Surabachi.

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi had eight infantry battalions at his disposal. There was also a tank regiment, two artillery, and three heavy mortar battalions. Beyond this were the 5,000 gunners and naval infantry.

Image: USA National Archives / CC BY-SA

The real difference was the Japanese tenacity, however. They defended until the end, which in turn meant a high death toll.

Out of the 21,000 Japanese soldiers that took part in the battle of Iwo Jima, 19,000 were killed. Only 1,083 surrendered.

On the final night of battle, a 300-man Japanese force launched a futile counterattack. The American forces were too great in number. The next day, the island was declared secure.

Allied losses were still comparatively high, however. According to the U.S. Navy, “The 36-day (Iwo Jima) assault resulted in more than 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead.

After the Battle of Iwo Jima, approximately 3,000 Japanese soldiers remained alive in the tunnel networks. Many committed suicide as protocol dictated. Those that didn’t remained hidden throughout the island, venturing out at night to find food and water.

Amazingly, two soldiers, Yamakage Kufuku and Matsudo Linsoki managed to last three and a half years in this condition, hiding from the Americans on the occupied island. They finally surrendered on January 6, 1949.

The U.S. military would remain on Iwo Jima for another 23 years after the invasion. It was until June 26, 1968, that the remote outpost was returned to Japan.

Where is Iwo Jima?

Visiting Iwo Jima Today

iwo jima tour
Image: Senior Airman Lynette M. Rolen (CC BY 2.0)

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) lives on the island today. They are in charge of support, air traffic control, fueling, and rescue and operate a naval airbase there.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force also uses the base with a garrison of 400 troops on the island.

Civilian access is severely restricted. Only a small number of official tour operators are allowed to land there with tourists. [see box below].

Such tours will provide historians that will guide you to some of the key sites of the battle as well as explanations of the strategies employed by both the American and Japanese forces.

A trip to the summit of Mt. Suribachi is definitely worth it to see the spot where the flag was raised, and the iconic photograph was taken.

However, you will need good walking shoes and bring snacks and water. Walking to the top of Mt Suribachi does require a medium level of fitness. It is steep in places, but there is a paved road interspersed with gravel track.

Some of the beaches on the island are also worth visiting. There are a number of wrecks jutting out of the water (old military boats and equipment) and the overall feeling is very apocalyptic.

Two abandoned airfields from World War II also still exist. Central Field to the south of the current airbase can be visited. There is also an unfinished Japanese airfield to the north of the base.

Recommended Tour

Stephen Ambrose – War in the Pacific Tour

Mt Suribachi memorial Iwo Jima
Image: U.S. Navy, Lt. j.g. Greg Kausner / Public domain

Historical tours via Stephen Ambrose are the most reputable provider. A package deal takes care of all your travel and accommodation with pick up and return points in Hawai. Beyond access to Iwo Jima, the tour also includes visits to Saipan, Tinian and Guam.

A full-time historian and tour manager join you throughout. First-class accommodation and coach are also included.

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